The article first appeared in The Sunday Times, Jan 18, 2014

Mid-life crisis leads to career change

Family man gave up IT job to be property consultant, and now enjoys flexible hours

As some people approach their 40s, they fall into a mid-life crisis and buy a swanky car or some other pricey toy.

Not Mr Joseph Tan, 41. After 16 years in information technology (IT), he was having second thoughts about how he earned money, not how to spend it.

So, three years ago, the IT manager swopped his salaried job for the entirely commission-based life of a property consultant.

"I called it a mid-life crisis, but people say I should call it a mid-life career change," he says.

It was a tough call because he had parents, in-laws and two sons - Declan, nine and Caton, five - depending on him.

Mr Tan knew many people who had burnt out within three months in this line of work.

But he had done his research. One reason for the high failure rate, he found, is that many newcomers jump in financially unprepared to weather the transition. "If you don't work hard enough and don't have the luck to close some deals, you won't get paid."

He advises: "Even when you're a salaried worker, you should have one year of cash reserves in case you lose your job."

Fortunately for Mr Tan, he had the full support of his wife Geraldine, 36, a regional training manager. So he took the leap.

It took Mr Tan about four months to "get into the ball game". Before that, what he brought home was not even close to the $7,000 monthly salary he drew as an IT manager. The "real pay", as he called it, came only in his ninth month as a property consultant, when he closed his first big deal.

Mr Tan started out dealing in residential properties but is focusing more on commercial ones now. Conveniently, these clients prefer to view the office and retail space during office hours, freeing up Mr Tan's weekends.

"It gives me a lot of flexibility during my kids' growing years, and that's something money cannot buy," he says. In his previous job, he often worked 12 hours a day.

Mr Tan is invested in his children, and his is no passive management approach. "I hope they are an asset," he says.

Q: Are you a spender or saver?

I am typically a saver as I believe in saving during my productive years and enjoying the fruits of labour in my golden years.

My wife and I are also teaching Declan and Caton the value of saving, starting from things like pocket money. I tell them to keep some of it in a coin bank, keep it for something that you wish to buy.

They're doing it diligently, they say they will give us a treat. They've already given their grandmother and her neighbour a treat.

Q: How much do you charge to your credit cards every month?

I limit my credit card spending to between $650 and $1,000 each month for essentials like meals, groceries, petrol and business expenses. The younger generation, some of them spend their monthly salaries paying down credit card debt. It's really quite sad. Last time, how did we pay? Cash!

Q: What financial planning have you done for yourself?

I invest in a portfolio of financial vehicles like stocks, unit trusts using CPF (Central Provident Fund) savings, life insurance, personal accident, medical and savings policies and other forms of business partnerships.

I have a 50 per cent stake in a mobile phone repair shop, Gadgets Connection, in Toa Payoh. It's not really for money-making, more to help my wife's cousins...

Initially, I rejected the idea because I don't like retail. But then I told my cousin-in-law that if he did repair plus retail, he could diversify his business risk.

Now we're one of the top few repair shops in Singapore, and 70 to 80 per cent of revenue comes from repairs. They're surviving, and I just take on an advisory role.

Last year, my wife and I also decided to invest in a very different area: retirement insurance.

I got a call from a telemarketer and she told me about the policy, and arranged for us to meet a financial consultant. They also told us about a CHF (Chinese Heritage Foundation) grant we could use to subsidise our first year's premium, and applied for the grant on our behalf.

Try to have an open mind, and sometimes you may learn something you did not know.

Q: Moneywise, what were your growing-up years like?

For the first two years of my life, I lived with my grandpa in a kampung in Sembawang. After that, our family moved into a one-room HDB rental flat - five people squeezed into one room. Then my dad bought a four-room flat in Bishan.

My dad was a plasterer working at construction sites. He didn't have much education, but one thing I learnt from him, that I think is not easy to learn, is to be contented with what you have.

It's not easy because colleagues to colleagues, friends to friends, comparison never ends! Easier for me because I used to live in a one-room flat, and now I live in a condo - I never expected that.

So compare yourself to yourself, rather than other people.

Q: How did you get interested in investing?

In my late 20s, when I just started working, stock investments were a common topic.

I started investing in the local stock market, but over time I realised that the margins, the dividends were not that great. So I moved on to the US stock exchange.

Q: What is your retirement plan?

I can still be a property consultant when I'm 65. I'll work as long as I'm healthy. It keeps your brain working, and keeps you in a healthy state of mind.

If you just stare at the wall, you'll die sooner.

Q: Home is now...

An apartment at Parc Haven in Balestier.

Q: I drive...

A family car, a Toyota Wish. I didn't take a car loan, I saved up for it.

Q: What's the most extravagant thing you have bought?

The car. A car is a luxury item, but for my line of work, I consider it a necessity.

marilee@sph.com.sg

The article first appeared in The Sunday Times, Jan 18, 2014